Access to Library Resources and Services

Equity extends beyond equality—fairness and universal access—to deliberate and intentional efforts to create service delivery models that will make sure that community members have the resources they need. Often these needs are different not only as the result of race and ethnicity but also owing to religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identification, socioeconomic status, or physical ability.

Digital Divide | Economic Barriers to Information Access | Net Neutrality | Prisoners’ Right to Read

“Libraries are innately subversive institutions born of the radical notion that every single member of society deserves free, high quality access to knowledge and culture.” Dr. Matt Finch

“All information resources that are provided directly or indirectly by the library, regardless of technology, format, or methods of delivery, should be readily, equally, and equitably accessible to all library users.” ALA Core Values

Equity extends beyond equality—fairness and universal access—to deliberate and intentional efforts to create service delivery models that will make sure that community members have the resources they need. Often these needs are different not only as the result of race and ethnicity but also owing to religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identification, socioeconomic status, or physical ability.

Libraries are major sources of information for society and they serve as guardians of the public’s access to information. The advent of the digital world has revolutionized how the public obtains its information and how libraries provide it. As the digital world continues to evolve, libraries help ensure that people can access the information they need – regardless of age, education, ethnicity, language, income, physical limitations or geographic barriers. Core values of the library community such as equal access to information, intellectual freedom, and the objective stewardship and provision of information must be preserved and strengthened, now more than ever.

For intellectual freedom to flourish, opposition to censorship of materials is not enough. Access to materials, without prejudice, to every member of the community must also be assured. As one of the core values of librarianship, ‘Equality of access to recorded knowledge and information’ which involves ‘insuring that all library resources are accessible to all overcoming technological and monetary barriers to access’ goes hand in hand with democracy and freedom.

ALA Statements and Policies on Access

Equity and Access in the ALA Policy Manual

Timeline of Equal Access in Libraries

Access to Digital Resources and Services: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights (2019)
Digital resources and services allow libraries to significantly expand the scope of information available to users. Like all resources and services provided by the library, provision of access to digital resources and services should follow the principles outlined in the Library Bill of Rights to ensure equitable access regardless of content or platform.

  • Interpretation Q&A - As librarians, we have a professional obligation to strive for free access to all information resources. However, many of the questions concerning digital information will not have a single answer. ALA recognizes that each library needs to develop policies in keeping with its mission, objectives, and users. Librarians also need to be cognizant of local legislation and judicial decisions that may affect implementation of their policies.

Access to Library Resources and Services Regardless of Sex, Gender Identity, Gender Expression, or Sexual Orientation: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights (2020)
The American Library Association stringently and unequivocally maintains that libraries and librarians have an obligation to resist efforts that systematically exclude materials dealing with any subject matter, including sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

Restricted Access to Library Materials: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights (2014)
Libraries are a traditional forum for the open exchange of information. Attempts to restrict access to library materials violate the basic tenets of the Library Bill of Rights.

Services to People with Disabilities: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights (2018)
ALA recognizes that persons with disabilities are a large and often neglected part of society. In addition to many personal challenges, some persons with disabilities face economic inequity, illiteracy, cultural isolation, and discrimination in education, employment, and the broad range of societal activities. The library plays a catalytic role in their lives by facilitating their full participation in society.

Universal Access
Resources provided by the Public Library Association (PLA)

Access to Research Materials in Archives and Special Collections Libraries (2009)
Joint statement by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and Society of American Archivists (SAA)

Publications and Articles

After Access: Libraries & Digital Empowerment (2015)
By Larra Clark and Karen Archer
A Report from the American Library Association Digital Inclusion Summit on Building Digitally Inclusive Communities.

Managing Barriers: Provision of Information Access for Underserved Groups (2015)
By Nicole Askin

Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study (2012)
Coordinated by the Office for Research & Statistics
This project, (made possible by a generous donation from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Library Association) was a multi-year project that assesses public access to computers, the Internet and Internet-related services in U.S. public libraries, as well as the impact of library funding changes on connectivity, technology deployment and sustainability.

Access to Libraries and Information: Towards a Fairer World (2008)
By T.J. Bothma
IFLA/FAIFE world report series, v. 7

Imagining Fairness: Equality and Equity of Access in Search of Democracy (2002)
By Jorge Reina Schement

Rocks in the Whirlpool (2002)
By Kathleen de la Peña McCook

Digital Divide

Digital divide is a term that refers to the economic and social inequality between demographics and regions that have access to modern information and communications technology and those that don't. The digital divide typically exists between those in cities and those in rural areas; between the educated and the uneducated; between socioeconomic groups; and, globally, between the more and less industrially developed nations. Even among populations with some access to technology, the digital divide can be evident in the form of lower-performance computers, lower-speed wireless connections, lower-priced connections such as dial-up, and limited access to subscription-based content.

According to recent studies and reports, the digital divide is still very much a reality today. A June 2013 U.S. White House broadband report, for example, showed that only 71% of American homes have adopted broadband, a figure lower than in other countries with comparable gross domestic product. Closing the digital divide would improve literacy, democracy, social mobility, economic equality and economic growth.

Publications and Articles

Pew Research on Digital Divide (2017)

Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide (2011)
By Jessamyn West

Infographic: Public Libraries Help Build Digitally Inclusive Communities (2011)
By the Office for Research and Statistics
The results of the Digital Inclusion Survey show that public libraries lead the way in providing a wide range of technologies and digital content. Millions of people use these resources to enhance their digital literacy skills, and support education, employment, civic engagement, and health purposes. In doing so, public libraries are essential to building digitally inclusive communities.

Economic Barriers to Information Access

Through a common mission, publicly supported libraries provide free, equal , and equitable access to information for all people of the community that the library serves. Libraries need to regularly monitor their programs to make sure they are not, and will not be, limiting access to library services by imposing a fee for any potential user.

People experiencing poverty or homelessness constitute a significant portion of users in many libraries today and this population provides libraries with an important opportunity to change lives. As the numbers of poor children, adults, and families in America rises, so does the urgent need for libraries to effectively respond to their needs.

Access to library and information resources, services, and technologies is essential for all people, especially the economically disadvantaged, who may experience isolation, discrimination and prejudice or barriers to education, employment, and housing.

ALA Statements and Policies on Economic Barriers to Information Access

Library Services to the Poor in the ALA Policy Manual

Economic Barriers to Information Access: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights (2019)
All resources provided directly or indirectly by the library, regardless of format or method of delivery, should be readily and equitably accessible to all library users. Imposing any financial barrier may disadvantage users, and libraries of all types—public, school, and academic—should consider eliminating barriers that limit access to library resources and other services.

Publications and Articles

The Librarian's Guide to Homelessness: An Empathy-Driven Approach to Solving Problems, Preventing Conflict, and Serving Everyone (2018)
By Ryan Dowd
In this book Dowd, executive director of a homeless shelter, spotlights best practices drawn from his own shelter’s policies and training materials. Filled with to-the-point guidance that will help frontline public library staff and managers understand and serve this population better.

Resources on Libraries and Homelessness (2017)
Compiled by Jennifer Peterson for Webjunction
Resources include articles, webinars, online courses, videos and groups.

Extending Our Reach: Reducing Homelessness Through Library Engagement
By the ALA Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services
A toolkit designed to help librarians and library staff create meaningful library services for people who are experiencing homelessness.

Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force
By the ALA Social Responsibilities Round Table
In 1996, members of the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) formed the Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force to promote and implement Policy 61, Library Services for the Poor and to raise awareness of poverty issues.

Library Service to the Homeless (2013)
By Amy Mars published in Public Libraries Online
The article discusses the responsibilities the public library has to the homeless community, as well as services that libraries can provide to benefit the homeless population. The author comments on the legality and ethics of limiting homeless people's access to library services, libraries' obligation to the entire community, and balancing the needs of all patrons against the effects of poverty. She explains several outreach programs to empower the homeless that libraries can enact including engaging the homeless community, providing transportation, and developing collections specifically with the homeless in mind.

Poverty, Democracy and Public Libraries (2001)
By Kathleen de la Peña McCook
In this chapter the socio-economic context of poverty is explored to gain an understanding of the role librarians can play today to provide opportunity for poor people to participate in democracy. A brief review of key writing and documents that define public library service is provided to establish the historical foundation.

Net Neutrality

Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) must enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source and without favoring or blocking specific services or websites.

The ALA has been on the front lines of the net neutrality battle with the FCC, Congress and the federal courts for more than a decade, working in coalition with other library and higher education organizations as well as broader coalitions of net neutrality advocates.

Net Neutrality Principles

Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom (2014)

  • Ensure Neutrality on All Public Networks: Neutrality is an essential characteristic of public broadband Internet access. The principles that follow must apply to all broadband providers and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who provide service to the general public, regardless of underlying transmission technology (e.g., wireline or wireless) and regardless of local market conditions.
  • Prohibit Blocking: ISPs and public broadband providers should not be permitted to block access to legal web sites, resources, applications, or Internet-based services.
  • Protect Against Unreasonable Discrimination: Every person in the United States should be able to access legal content, applications, and services over the Internet, without “unreasonable discrimination” by the owners and operators of public broadband networks and ISPs. This will ensure that ISPs do not give favorable transmission to their affiliated content providers or discriminate against particular Internet services based on the identity of the user, the content of the information, or the type of service being provided. “Unreasonable discrimination” is the standard in Title II of the Communications Act; the FCC has generally applied this standard to instances in which providers treat similar customers in significantly different ways.
  • Prohibit Paid Prioritization: Public broadband providers and ISPs should not be permitted to sell prioritized transmission to certain content, applications, and service providers over other Internet traffic sharing the same network facilities. Prioritizing certain Internet traffic inherently disadvantages other content, applications, and service providers—including those from higher education and libraries that serve vital public interests.
  • Prevent Degradation: Public broadband providers and ISPs should not be permitted to degrade the transmission of Internet content, applications, or service providers, either intentionally or by failing to invest in adequate broadband capacity to accommodate reasonable traffic growth.
  • Enable Reasonable Network Management: Public broadband network operators and ISPs should be able to engage in reasonable network management to address issues such as congestion, viruses, and spam as long as such actions are consistent with these principles. Policies and procedures should ensure that legal network traffic is managed in a content-neutral manner.
  • Provide Transparency: Public broadband network operators and ISPs should disclose network management practices publicly and in a manner that 1) allows users as well as content, application, and service providers to make informed choices; and 2) allows policy-makers to determine whether the practices are consistent with these network neutrality principles. This rule does not require disclosure of essential proprietary information or information that jeopardizes network security.
  • Continue Capacity-Based Pricing of Broadband Internet Access Connections: Public broadband providers and ISPs may continue to charge consumers and content, application, and service providers for their broadband connections to the Internet, and may receive greater compensation for greater capacity chosen by the consumer or content, application, and service provider.
  • Adopt Enforceable Policies: Policies and rules to enforce these principles should be clearly stated and transparent. Any public broadband provider or ISP that is found to have violated these policies or rules should be subject to penalties, after being adjudicated on a case-by-case basis.
  • Accommodate Public Safety: Reasonable accommodations to these principles can be made based on evidence that such accommodations are necessary for public safety, health, law enforcement, national security, or emergency situations.
  • Maintain the Status Quo on Private Networks: Owners and operators of private networks that are not openly available to the general public should continue to operate according to the long-standing principle and practice that private networks are not subject to regulation. End users (such as households, companies, coffee shops, schools, or libraries) should be free to decide how they use the broadband services they obtain from network operators and ISPs.

ALA Statements and Policies on Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality. ALA Washington Office

Net Neutrality: An Intellectual Freedom Issue. ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee

Publications and Articles

Net Neutrality and the FCC: An Information Policy Primer (2014)
By Karl-Rainer Blumenthal published in Bulletin of the Association for Information Science and Technology
The following reading of statutory code and litigation history is an effort to translate a complex and ongoing legal debate into language appropriate to a matter of policy for information science and technology professionals.

Prisoners’ Right to Read

ALA Statements and Policies on Access

Prisoners’ Right to Read: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights (2019)
The American Library Association asserts a compelling public interest in the preservation of intellectual freedom for individuals of any age held in jails, prisons, detention facilities, juvenile facilities, immigration facilities, prison work camps and segregated units within any facility.

Resolution on Prisoners' Right to Read (1982)

Publications and Articles

Library Services and Incarceration: Recognizing Barriers, Strengthening Access (2021)
By Jeanie Austin

Securing Prisoners’ Right to Read: A Process with Milestones but No Finish Line (2010)
By Diane Walden

Assistance and Consultation

The staff of the Office for Intellectual Freedom is available to answer questions or provide assistance to librarians, trustees, educators and the public about access to library resources and services. Areas of assistance include policy development, equity of access, and professional ethics. Inquiries can be directed via email to or via phone at (312) 280-4226.

Updated October 2021